Despite the temptation to think only about the presidential election when you vote early or enter the voting booth a week from now, please don’t. Pay heed to the ballot questions concerning charter amendments B, C and D.
These questions, all concerning the restrictive revenue cap, bear directly on the necessary services that Talbot County government must provide its citizens in terms of education, law enforcement and emergency health care. Funding for these three services is sadly lacking.
The property tax rates in our county are the lowest in the state. Our local income tax rate is the second lowest, above only Worcester County, home to Ocean City. Some might consider the low taxes a source of pride, an example of conservative management of a county in which many want to live.
I don’t feel that way. Our education system should be the best in the state. It isn’t. To make up for shortfalls that threaten the academic excellence that all parents should expect, the Talbot County Public School Education Foundation raises money for grants to teachers who want to provide an enriched experience for their students. While this exemplifies self-reliance, it also points to a grievous shortage of money.
Talbot County is fortunate to have a top-rate superintendent in Kelly Griffith, augmented by administrators and faculty determined to overcome harmful budgetary constraints.
The sheriff’s office is also suffering from fiscal neglect. Despite a move to increase deputies’ pay by $5,000 per year, the department remains one of the lowest paid in Maryland. The sad result is that the sheriff was unable to recruit any new deputies this year.
Though Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulances and paramedics are positioned throughout the county, the average response time is 7 minutes, 41 seconds; the critical standard is 8 minutes. In the northern reaches of the county, the average response time is between 10 and 11 minutes. The solution is to add another unit, possibly in Cordova. Currently the budget does not allow this expenditure.
It the county council had raised the current property tax rate of roughly 64 cents per $100 of property value (50-52 cents in incorporated areas like Easton and Oxford) to the allowable Consumer Price Index Urban (CPI-U) of 1.9% in 2020, a home assessed at median home price of $326,216 would have owed an extra $17. If a simple 2% cap had been used, the property tax bill would have been less than $2 higher.
Ballot question B calls for a technical remedy to calculate the property tax.
Ballot question C eliminates the CPI-U in favor of a simple 2% percent cap. This is essential, since the county council has frequently increased the tax rate a mere 1% and more often limited the tax rate increase to 2% when the inflation rate exceeded 2%. The tax cap was enacted in 1997.
Ballot question D would, for five years, allow the county council to add a penny to the tax rate above the current cap. For the owner of the same $326,216 home, the additional cost would be $32.
If all three ballot questions pass, and the county council chooses to raise the property tax to its maximum level under the reformed cap, our county would still have the lowest property tax rate in the state. What’s more, education, law enforcement and emergency medical services would improve.
The increased property tax rate, if approved by the voters, would represent a sensible investment in Talbot County. It would break the current logjam that precludes the necessary expansion of services important to all residents. It removes a barrier to reasonable progress.
Biden versus Trump is surely the main attraction. That’s understandable. Enhancement of vital county services matters now and for the future.
In my experience, neither this county council nor succeeding ones will be profligate with taxpayers’ money. Should the three ballot questions pass, our councilmembers will have more leeway to improve living conditions in Talbot County.
It’s about time for the budgeting process to be prudent, not penurious.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.